A long time ago I was in college, and one fateful day in between stressing out about girls and how I was going to finish all my papers before next Wednesday, I wandered into my local record shop and heard a band that would eventually shape my musical life. Fruit Bats’ Mouthfuls was like nothing I’d ever heard before; granted, the music I listened to back then was pretty questionable, but I knew good music when I heard it. I just needed to find it. I played that CD over and over, sharing it with anyone who would lean in and catch a sample of it blaring from my over-sized headphones.
Ironically, Fruit Bats are pretty standard when it comes to indie folk bands, and what was so revolutionary to me just under a decade ago is now the status quo. But there’s something to be said for a band who puts forth reliably solid records even if there’s nothing blogmongeringly incredible about it.
Where as Fruit Bats’ 2009 Ruminant Band was extroverted and poppy, Tripper is laid back, rooted in familiar acoustic guitars, and subtle. Lead singer/songwriter Eric Johnson relied heavily upon the band’s contributions earlier, and now he returns to something much more personal, and even introduces narratives unlike anything he’s crafted before. “Tony the Tripper” kicks things off with stout acoustic guitars and leaves everything else, including the slide guitars and jangling piano keys, tucked away and in the background. “So Long” continues this trend, layering faint instrumentals with Johnson’s trademark falsetto and quirky chord changes.
The album as a whole is nothing Fruit Bats’ fans are unfamiliar with, and some critics may even think of it as a misstep after such an ambitious last record, but the changes in Johnson’s usual songwriting are so carefully weaved into each song that they’re unbelievably easy to miss. The lyrical echoes and nods to lo-fi recordings, the extension of the falsetto’s role, the whimsical contrasts between the alt-country flavor of “Tangie and Ray” and the organ-stomper “Dolly”; all of these amount to an album that’s satisfying while staying under the radar and even a bit underwhelming on the first couple listens.
Which might also explain the reason that Fruit Bats haven’t exactly become a mainstream success despite the consistent quality on every album. Their particular brand of indie folk is effortless and sweet; the proverbial girl next door. It’s easy to miss if you’re not looking for it. And while Tripper probably won’t be the album that puts them on the map, it’s another excellent record in a canon that gets better and better with each release.